In the Time of the Butterflies Themes

  • Julia Alvarez drew on the true story of the Mirabal sisters to write this powerful novel about revolution. The Mirabal sisters grow up under the regime of dictator Rafael Trujillo and witness many of the atrocities committed by Trujillo and his men. Three of the sisters join the revolution and become martyrs, earning the name "the Butterflies" in recognition of their heroism and beauty.
  • For the Mirabal sisters, revolution runs in the family. Three of the sisters become heroes of the revolution, and two of them marry fellow revolutionaries and have children who join the resistance. Family ties bind the sisters together, but their defiance of Trujillo causes trouble for other members of their family, including their father.
  • Gender plays an important role in the novel. As women in the Dominican Republic, the Mirabal sisters are limited in the amount of power and authority they can achieve. Their parents send them to a convent school and expect them to marry well, but the sisters defy expectations by joining the revolution and becoming heroes. 

Themes and Meanings

Alvarez’s most pervasive theme is that heroism exists side by side with the mundane, that extraordinary courage can be a part of ordinary life. To emphasize this, she intertwines the story of the sisters’ political lives with stories of their courtships, motherhood, and concerns about daily trivia. On the day of their deaths, she has them gleefully splurge on new purses; one of their last acts is to make a stop for beer and lemonade.

In Dedé, she also explores themes of personal memory versus public remembrance and of the obligations of the living to the memory of the dead. After Trujillo’s regime, Dedé sacrifices her personal identity to become the living repository of her sisters’ memory. For thirty-four years, she faithfully attends events honoring the Butterflies and answers endless questions about them. She says she does this to return hope to her people by helping them to make sense of their past. Her life as their representative also seems to redeem her former noninvolvement. At times, Dedé yearns for the day when she can be her own self again. Even her career, she knows, she owes to her sisters, for many want to own life insurance sold to them by the sole surviving Mirabal sister. Yet she knows the value of keeping the memory of her sisters’ heroism alive, and she is not ready to set aside her duty.

Dedé also is still trying to manage her personal grief over the loss of her sisters. She plays back memories of their lives together. These memories honor Patria, Minerva, and María Teresa not only as patriots and martyrs but also as sisters, daughters, wives, and mothers. As the story ends, Minerva’s daughter Minou arrives to visit her aunt, and she tells Dedé that Fela, the Mirabals’ elderly servant who claims to be in contact with the sisters’ spirits, was unable to talk to the martyrs today. Dedé knows this is because the sisters were with her all afternoon, but she tells Minou that the sisters would not come because they have finally achieved peace. Readers know that it is Dedé who needs and is seeking peace.

Alvarez portrays all four Mirabals as ordinary young girls and women, not as the larger-than-life heroes of Dominican lore. Her choice makes their courage and political resistance seem possible for anyone, without diminishing its remarkable nature, and the Mirabals emerge as inspiring and forceful role models.

Themes

The disastrous effect of a dictatorship on the lives of the citizens of the Dominican Republic is the main theme of In the Time of the...

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